Former Comic Relief director gets serious about community building

Guest post by Amanda Horton-Mastin

There is plenty of evidence that doing good is good for business. The more a company is a positive force in the world, the more likely it is to attract good talent; keep that talent happy and engaged; enjoy stronger relationships with stakeholders; and be more successful financially.

From a career spent in the charity arena, including two decades at Comic Relief, I know that businesses here in the UK are incredibly generous when it comes to donating time and money. But it can be hard for business leaders to know which cause, place, or charity to get behind. Particularly as news about environmental and global crises pervade our airwaves.

Fortunately, SMEs are ideally placed to support local communities and to reap the many benefits that come with being a positive force in the world.

APE Project: a Bristol playground scheme ActionFunder is support

Here are six steps for getting involved in the growing movement to give back to the community:

1. Work out what your community actually needs

You wouldn’t take a new product to market without doing research and understanding where the gaps exist. The same applies for supporting local communities. Your support will be most effective if you start with some research into local needs.

Ask around to get a sense of local issues and who’s doing great work that you could support. You could talk to your staff for pointers, or to other local businesses, suppliers, clients, local councillors, or your local council for voluntary services (also known as a ‘CVS’ – many are listed here).

Ask your staff to establish whether anyone’s doing the plumbing in the village hall for free, or helping older people to get online while going about their work

You may find that there are issues – and therefore also solutions – you had never really considered. There can be mutual benefit in this, like making your high street safer and more pleasant or supporting projects that boost local skills.

If you have a widely dispersed workforce there may be no immediately obvious (geographical) community with which to partner. Talk to your staff and consider aligning yourself to a locality or a cause linked to your products, services, or suppliers.

2. Look at what you’re already doing

You may find that your employees are already engaged in community action. Ask your staff to establish whether anyone’s doing the plumbing in the village hall for free, or helping older people to get online while going about their work. They may consider those tasks par for the course, or they might worry that company leadership would disapprove if they knew.

Whatever interaction you already have with your local community, take some time to unearth it, celebrate it with staff and customers, and see if you can build on it with volunteering, in-kind support, or funding.

3. Think local (beyond the charities we all know)

When I worked for Comic Relief, we had many, multi-year programmes with big, familiar international charity brands. But we also had grants programmes distributing funds to smaller charities, because we recognised the value of local solutions.

The large charities do great work, and when you partner with them you benefit from their global reach and experience. But when it comes to community building it’s also important to look to brilliant local work being done on your doorstep.

With smaller community groups and charities, you can form a direct relationship, build close connections, and have a genuine stake in the results you achieve together.

4. Make your money work hard

Unsurprisingly, if you talk to organisations already making a difference in your local area, many will describe having very stretched budgets. What might surprise you is how far community groups can stretch those budgets to get amazing results, thanks to the expertise they have, the trust they enjoy, and the willing support of local volunteers.

On our new platform, ActionFunder, which pairs businesses with local good causes, potential grantees are often asking for just a few hundred pounds in order to create or secure the future of projects – this could be gardening tools to enable young people and those with disabilities to enjoy horticulture for a year.

Volunteering is still happening in the Covid-19 world, but with some changes

For some community organisations, this type of specific funding for a set project is exactly what they need. Others might benefit from more flexibility – perhaps in exchange for funding some of their overheads, you could be positioned as the sponsor of a particular campaign or activity.

5. Get your hands dirty

I’m a big advocate for encouraging employees to volunteer on projects that are meaningful to them. It’s a great way to develop skills and enhance wellbeing as well reinforce your company values. You may find that lots of colleagues already do this in their spare time.

We give everyone two days a year to volunteer in work time, and organise team volunteering twice a year too. Our last volunteering day involved clearing out and sorting through three years worth of donated products in storage at Clitterhouse Farm in London.

Volunteering is still happening in the Covid-19 world, but with some changes. Volunteering days we organised for clients previously focused on projects near their office, but with the rise of home working we often now look for opportunities in areas which are home to clusters of employees.

6. Give a platform to community action

How can you use your voice to champion and support the great community work already being done? Can you mention and re-share community action and community leaders on your social media channels, or newsletters you send to clients and contacts?

Can you set up a ‘lunch and learn’ event for them to share their stories with your audience? Can you introduce community champions to relevant people in your network, or help them bring their knowledge and concerns to local decision makers and influencers?

Whatever you do, remember that the local charities and community groups you engage with are the experts. Be prepared to champion and support them; while you should aim to be an active partner, you should make them feel empowered. Together, you’ll do great things.

Amanda Horton-Mastin is the CEO of Semble, which has recently launched ActionFunder, a platform connecting businesses with local good causes

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